Social Class in America
Shows the difference social class makes in the lives of three high school boys. Explains how one boy is able to raise his social status.
Ken Smith sez: If this film was designed to stimulate thought, it succeeds. We follow the lives of three small town high school buddies; "Gil Ames" who is rich and happy; "Dave Benton" who is poor and doomed; and "Ted Eastwood," who is middle class and doomed. Gil is sent to an Ivy League school (where he meets "men of his own kind"), returns home wearing a bow tie, and takes over his father's very profitable business. Dave gets married, has lots of kids, and winds up working in a gas station. Ted wants to be an artist, but he falls in love with "Mary" and becomes a white collar bookkeeper.
Mary, however, wants a man with a bigger bank account, so she dumps Ted, who then decides to move to Manhattan and "make something" of himself. After many years of hard work as an advertising artist and art director, Ted lands a painfully dull white collar job in an advertising agency and gets to play golf with rich men. This is "vertical mobility," the narrator explains, "particularly characteristic of the United States." Ted returns home wearing a snappy hat, but Mary has married Gil, and both really don't want anything to do with him.
This film was produced to explain basic concepts of sociology, but ends up presenting a rather dark view of social class and mobility in America. Some of it (especially the railroad station scene) appears to have been shot in and around Convent Station, N.J.
Sociological discussion of ascribed status, achieved status, vertical mobility and horizontal mobility in America. We follow the lives of three men from high school on through their professional lives. Rather pessimistic conclusion on the possibilities of movement across class boundaries.
"These three babies are equal under the law, but they are not equal in terms of class..." This sociology lesson breaks educational film taboo by speaking directly about social class, shocking the ears with its frankness.
But what a bleak film! Beginning with shots of newborn babies in a maternity ward, it follows three boys (Dave Benton, a working-class kid; Ted Eastwood, a middle-class boy; and Gil Ames, the son of a factory owner) all the way to adulthood, showing how their destinies are largely determined by the class into which they are born.
Dave Benton finds a job right after high-school graduation, gets married and fathers a large family. Gil Ames goes to an Ivy League university (where he can meet "men of his own kind") and returns home to take over his father's factory. But the film devotes most of its attention to middle-class Ted Eastwood, who wants to be an artist but can't afford to take the risk of passing up a steady job. Ted grows increasingly frustrated with his boring white-collar job and his limited options. The final straw is when he loses his upper-class girlfriend to Gil. Feeling trapped for life, Ted moves to New York and becomes a commercial artist.
The film then shifts into a kind of implicit celebration of upward mobility, American-style. Ted becomes a great success in New York, the great melting pot. In a passage remarkable at once for its delicacy and candor, the narrator remarks: "Class lines are drawn differently in a large city like New York, although they are still there. Here professional standing, power and wealth are of great importance. It is possible for members of socially prominent families, theater people who may have come from the lower class, and successful businessmen of the middle class to mix socially, and Ted is an accepted member of the group." But when Ted returns home to visit his parents, he reverts to his previous status, "still the nice kid from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, no matter how successful he is."
Though there is nothing really radical about Social Class in America (its matrix of social class is derived from sociological, rather than Marxist categories) it was highly unusual for educational films in this period to openly discuss the limits of mobility in our society. In a time filled with noises of boom and prosperity, the mass media was generally silent on the subject of ceilings and barriers. As a technical film for the education of sociologists, this movie was freer to define the categorical limits of our freedom.
Newborn babies (excellent), white collar work; commercial kitchen; baking; yearbooks; domestic servants; family dinner;
street scenes; pedestrians; advertising agency; commercial art; cars; waving; gas station; men golfing in funny golf clothing;
"Class lines are drawn differently in a large city like New York. Although they are still there. Here professional standing, power and wealth are of great importance. It is possible for members of socially prominent families, theater people who may have come from the lower class, and successful businessmen of the middle class to mix socially and Ted is an accepted member of the group."
"He knows now that to her and Gil, he's still the nice kid from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, no matter how successful he is. His achieved status is higher than that of his father's because he has a profession. But that status depends on a place. In this case, New York."
SOCIOLOGY CLASS STRUCTURE IN AMERICAN SOCIETY HORIZONTAL & VERTICAL SOCIAL MOBILITY SOCIAL STATUS TEENAGERS ADOLESCENTS OCCUPATIONS FAMILIES JOBS SMALL TOWNS CITIES HIGH SCHOOLS GRADUATIONS GAS STATIONS BABIES BOW TIES GOLF MAIDS
Subject: Identifying places in this movie
I was born one year before this was made. I think the world depicted in the film matched the world around me. I knew people very much like the ones shown.
Subject: The 50s
went on to college too and, like my brothers, were the first from their families to continue their educations beyond high school. So I really think the shackles of social class truly began to erode in a significant way during that decade---and accelerated through the 60s, as you note.
BTW, in mentioning that my Dad was a tool and die maker, I did not mean to imply in any way a lack of respect for the skill involved. He was very skilled and often let me come to the tool room of the company where he worked on Saturday mornings to watch him work. I marveled at his ability to take a blueprint and a block of steel and fashion it with intricate care to create an elaborate die. But it was nevertheless a blue collar job, albeit a skilled one, with all that implied for social standing. It was never a question in our home whether we kids would attend college---it was a given.
Subject: @ donwert -- Right, the whole theme of 'Social Class in America', '57, is relentlessly grim.
You're right, the whole theme of this film, 'Social Class in America'(1957), is relentlessly grim, also it's depressing and fatalistic. Moreover, you point to your family as having successfully broken out of a not so acceptable social class for a better one, thus implying the film doesn’t really reflect reality. You're correct, but in 1957 things were very different and the picture the film paints of the mid 1950s is reasonably factual although for emphasis its case is somewhat overstated.
As a '48 baby-boomer, you will have graduated from high school about 1966. The mid to late 1960s were worlds apart from 1957 in just so many ways: the social revolution of the early 1960s--changes in attitudes to sex, class, egalitarianism etc., the Vietnam War, the draft (in a time of war), fundamental changes in civil rights, Kennedy, Johnson etc. By the time you'd graduated from college, we'd had the moon landings, the anti Vietnam War demonstrations--a huge social upheaval in and of itself--flower power and the hippie movement and of course Woodstock. And no one can forget the student riots around the world, especially in Paris.
Other than in times of all-out war, there are not many periods in history where attitudes have changed so dramatically in just a single decade. The staid 1950s depicted in this picture, thankfully, had gone by the mid 1960s and I'm sure you'd benefited from it. A hypothetical is not proof but it would be a reasonable bet to say that had you kids left school in 1957 things most likely would have been much harder for you. For starters, statistically your father's income a decade earlier say in 1951-52 probably couldn't have supported all of you kids right through high school, as the benefits of the post-war boom wouldn't be fully realized for another decade, concomitantly neither would the income of the average worker. (By 1960, the average income had increase very substantially over that of the early 1950s)
Clearly, you are a very talented lot, and my sincere congratulations to you for your success--as it's always great to see talent succeed, however, had the year been 1957 then perhaps not all of you would have done so well.
It is not my aim to criticize your comment, rather your experience provides a brilliant segue into a discussion that contrasts the 1950s and '60s. This film, although depressing and exaggerated, is an excellent snapshot of those times; it conveys a stuffy formal milieu that wouldn't have been tolerated by the kids of a decade later. For example, the party scene at Dave Benton's home has all males dressed in a suit and tie, a decade later they'd all have been in jeans--not to mention the young having long hair!
That you teenagers of the mid 1960s seem to be unaware that social mobility was supposed to be an obstacle in life amply demonstrates that a radically different zeitgeist by then had taken hold. By the mid 1960's, teenagers weren’t questioning whether their future was to be determined by the socially accepted strictures of circa 1957, rather, they simply ignored* them.
Finally, I must say that being tool and die maker is not something of which to be ashamed; it is the pinnacle job of the metal industries (outside professional mechanical engineers--but then they don’t get their hands dirty). Tool and die making is precision work and at its high end it involves great skill, expertise and considerable experience. Perhaps your father's talents and skills passed onto you kids and that you are too close to events to appreciate it. Today, our society greatly undervalues people who have talent and who can work skilfully with their hands and it does so at its peril. Now, we are almost totally dependent on Asian workers outside the country to provide those skills for us. (No, I'm not a tool and die maker, however once I did study metal and woodworking and I've briefly worked in machine shops. Electronics is my profession, so I don't get my hands dirty either but I take my hat off to those who do.)
I'm going to rate this film high, not for content which is only mediocre, but as a 50-plus year old historical snapshot that even today still provides us with ideas to think about.
* My family was between working and middle class and I can honestly say as a teenage baby-boomer that the concept of class restricting what I would do with my life never even entered my head. Nevertheless, I was aware of the class structures of my parents' era. To me, class was a quaint, somewhat strange notion of one's parents, it wasn't cool or egalitarian.
Today, it is less prevalent, but with monopolies becoming powerful again, and prices increasing at a higher rate than wage raises, one wonders what will happen.
Subject: In a rich man's world
Subject: Class War not Race War!!
Subject: Aspiring for Vertical Mobility
Subject: America is a Class Society...
I'm no communist, but I feel that democracy is undermined when a tiny number of people wield vast power. All of the current administration's cabinet are millionaires. Are they representing my interests?
Anyway, note the absence of any non-whites in this documentary.
Subject: Class structure today is all in the mind.